On this day in 1903, the Wright Flyer becomes “the first powered, heavier-than-air machine to achieve controlled, sustained flight with a pilot aboard;” the true age of aviation was born. The aircraft was of course designed and built by Wilbur and Orville Wright of Dayton, OH, two young men who did not attend college, but possessed extraordinary technical ability and a sophisticated approach to solving problems in mechanical design.
The Wrights originally built printing presses, and in 1892 opened a bicycle sales and repair shop. Soon, they were building their own bicycles, and this experience, combined with profits from their various businesses, allowed them to pursue their dream of building the world’s first airplane. It was also in this shop that the brothers utilized a wind-tunnel which every elementary school student in the Detroit area has seen at least six times at Greenfield Village. The brothers next began a series of glider designs testing them at Kitty Hawk, NC, where the steady winds and soft sand made conditions optimal to their purpose.
Back in Dayton, they designed a 12-horsepower internal combustion engine with the assistance of machinist Charles Taylor and built a new aircraft to house it; history was in the offing. They transported the aircraft in pieces to Kitty Hawk in the autumn of 1903, assembled it, and began further tests, as well as some gentle crashes. Finally at 10:35 AM on December 17, in front of five witnesses, the Flyer ran down a two-by-four monorail track and into the air, staying aloft for 12 seconds and flying 120 feet. The modern aviation age was born.
The startling news of this maiden flight thrilled some, and turned others into sour skeptics screaming of fake news; the Wrights themselves were undaunted and continued refining designs. On May 25, 1910, back at Huffman Prairie near Dayton, Orville piloted two unique flights. First, he took off on a six-minute flight with Wilbur as his passenger, the only time the Wright brothers ever flew together; they received permission from their father to make the flight as they had always promised Milton they would never fly together to avoid the chance of a double tragedy. Next, Orville took his 82-year-old father on a nearly seven-minute flight, the only one of Milton Wright’s life. The aircraft rose to about 350 feet while the elderly Wright called to his son, “Higher, Orville, higher!”
The Wrights went on to corporate formation, contracting and fighting challenges to their patents. Wilbur Wright died of typhoid fever in 1912, and Orville lived to 1948. The historic Wright Flyer aircraft of 1903 is on permanent display at the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, D.C.
And so, happy landings, as here the story endeth.